Examining the relationship between the barriers and current practices of sustainable procurement: A survey of un organizations

Publication Date01 Mar 2014
AuthorJacob Hasselbalch,Nives Costa,Alexander Blecken
SubjectPublic policy & environmental management,Politics,Public adminstration & management,Government,Economics,Public Finance/economics,Texation/public revenue
Jacob Hasselbalch, Nives Costa and Alexander Blecken*
ABSTRACT. This paper presents the results of a survey of perceptions on
sustainable procurement (SP) in the United Nations (UN). It is the first of its
kind to systematically analyse the issue of SP in the UN system. While the
UN has a tremendous opportunity to support their objective of sustainable
development through SP practices, significant obstacles still block the full
implementation of this goal. The purpose of this study is to investigate the
barriers to implementing SP practices in the UN system. Based on an online
survey that yielded 282 responses, we identified a framework of SP
measures and barriers, and conducted a regression analysis to identify
underlying correlations. We find significant correlation between good SP
practices and low demand, performance measurement and tool barriers.
Commonly referred to as the “power of the purse,” the pursuit of
policy agendas through the purchasing function is nothing new in
* Jacob Hasselbalch, M.Sc. degree in International Business and Politics, is
currently an Erasmus Mundus Doctoral Fellow at the University of Warwick
and L’Université Libre de Bruxelles. His research interests relate to
disruptive innovation and the professionalization of transnational
governance. Nives Costa, Master’s degree in International and Diplomatic
Studies, Faculty of Politics, Università degli Studi di Torino, is a Team
Manager of the Sustainable Procurement team at UNOPS. Her professional
and research interests are in sustainability and sustainable procurement in
public organisations, with focus on developing countries’ perspective.
Alexander Blecken, Ph.D. in Business Computing and Supply Chain
Management, University of Paderborn, Deputy Director of the Sustainable
Procurement Practice Group at UNOPS. His teaching and research interests
revolve around supply chain management in the context of humanitarian
Copyright © 2014 by PrAcademics Press
public procurement, with examples stretching back to the mid-19th
century (McCrudden, 2004). However, the focus on incorporating
sustainability – understood in terms of the Triple Bottom Line of
social, environmental and economic sustainability (Elkington, 1997) –
in public procurement is altogether more recent. While studies in the
private sector started looking at environmental issues in supply
chains as early as the 1990s (Lamming & Hampson, 1996), it was
not until 2006 that the United Kingdom, a forerunner in sustainable
public procurement, issued the first national action plan for
sustainable procurement facilitated by a multi-stakeholder
Sustainable Procurement Task Force (Department for Environment,
Food and Rural Affairs [DEFRA], 2006). The following years saw a
burgeoning of sustainable procurement national and international
approaches, and a consequent upsurge in interest from academic
researchers (Walker, Miemczyk, Johnsen & Spencer, 2012; Pagell &
Wu, 2009; Preuss, 2009).
In the United Nations, the idea of using sustainable procurement
(SP) to pursue sustainable development goals gained traction after
the World Environment Day in June, 2007 where Secretary-General
Ban-Ki Moon pledged “… to explore ways of making the United
Nations more climate friendly and environmentally sustainable, and
to develop a climate neutral approach to its premises and
operations” (United Nations Environment Programme [UNEP], 2011,
p. 15). The United Nations (UN) procured over 15 billion USD worth of
goods in 2012, 60% of which originated in developing countries
(United Nations Office for Project Services [UNOPS], 2013). With its
ambitious development goals in, inter alia, the areas of poverty
reduction, environmental sustainability and the empowerment of
women, it is natural for the UN to explore ways to leverage its
procurement activities to further these goals and its environmental
sustainability ambitions. The example of several sustainable
procurement initiatives in public and private organisations worldwide
is another motivator to consider the concept of sustainable
procurement for implementation in UN operations.
A number of key developments and reports in the recent years
have concurred to highlight the importance of implementing
sustainable procurement in the UN’s operations (UNEP, 2011), to
deliver on the pledge of an improved, harmonised environmental
sustainability performance in the whole UN system. A report from the
Joint Inspection Unit specifically recommended the establishment of
in-house sustainable procurement policies and guidelines to raise the
environmental profile of the UN. Today, numerous training materials,
guidelines and publications on the topic of SP are being made
available to the UN organisations, many of which are collected on the
UN’s sustainability communication platform called Greening the Blue
In spite of all these recent efforts to harmonize and advance
sustainable procurement in the United Nations, a number of issues
are making the implementation problematic (Lund-Thomsen & Costa,
2011). There are concerns that the process itself is more costly or
time-consuming than traditional procurement processes. SP is also
more complex, requiring procurement staff to take into account a
wider range of different factors. This could require training efforts and
updated procurement materials. Perhaps the strongest indication
that SP is not as straightforward as the recent surge in interest seems
to indicate is the fact that the General Assembly has yet to give its
official endorsement of SP to the UN entities. This is a reflection of
the unease that the concept awakens in especially the member
states with developing economies, which fear that stricter
environmental and social criteria in procurement will risk cutting their
suppliers out of the UN marketplace. The Group of 77 (G77) and
China presented these arguments in the Sixty Fourth General
Assembly Meeting in 2009, and a decision was reached to postpone
the decision on SP (United Nations General Assembly, 2009).
In this environment of increasing focus on the advancement and
harmonization of SP in the UN, but also significant obstacles to its
successful and widespread implementation, it thus makes sense to
study the issue more closely in order to provide actionable and
relevant insights. Sustainable procurement in the UN especially
represents a largely unexplored field, where findings can largely
contribute to our understanding of policy directions in the public
sector. As a case study, the UN represents a significant research
subject in consideration of its procurement volume, the political and
logistical complexity of its procurement operations, and most of all its
visibility as an organisation mandated to lead policy development
To gain an understanding of the current discrepancy between the
political discourse and the application of sustainable procurement,

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